Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

bernadetteMy mother-in-law recommended this to me because she’d thought I’d enjoy the humor and commentary on Seattle. She was right! This novel is great fun. It contains everything from battles with busybody PTA members to an adventure in the Antarctic, mysterious disappearances, egregious misunderstandings, a thwarted genius, an accidental pregnancy and a child who knows too much for her own good.

I made the mistake of telling my nine year old daughter about the amazing cruise the characters embarked on to Antarctica. As a penguin enthusiast, she thought that would be the best experience ever and began pestering me about saving up so we could go too. I’d much rather be an armchair traveler when it comes to the coldest and windiest place on the planet, thanks very much.

The details about the southernmost continent and the people who spend time there were interesting. If you’re really curious about this place, like my daughter, you’ll be disappointed, because this novel just scratches the surface.

I personally enjoyed the descriptions of Seattle and the people who live here. Bernadette wasn’t as much a fan of the place as I am – at least in the beginning. Sometimes, her criticisms really stung. I found myself wanting to argue with her, which is funny, because she seems to inspire that feeling in most people who come into contact with her.

While my family doesn’t exist in the same social circles as the characters in this book (we don’t regularly hob nob with Bill Gates, for instance), the scenarios with nosy co-workers and busy-body PTA members were familiar and funny, as caricatures are meant to be. The escapades of these characters were not run-of-the-mill and not intended to be mere reflections of the lives of average people. Instead, they are exaggerated and distorted, kind of like reflections in fun-house mirrors, and by that very exaggeration and distortion, teach us something of human behavior. For me, the book provided insights into the challenges of parenthood, the frustrations of growing up and being misunderstood, depression, marriage and need some people have to create. Very good stuff.

The quasi-epistolary format of this novel was creative and worked well to give a sense that the characters’ actions created chain reactions reaching far out from their little circle. Unfortunately, I felt the voice in each document was too consistent, too similar. Bee, the child, should have had a dramatically different voice from that of her father’s admin, and her father’s admin should have had a different voice from that of the psychologist, but they didn’t. Despite this, the uniqueness of each character managed to percolate through the words, so that wasn’t a deal breaker for me.

All in all, the book lives up to the hype. It’s creative, funny and full of adventure.

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